Tony Stewart Bests Justin Ashley In Reaction Time But Gets Eliminated Early In First NHRA Top Fuel Outing

By Jerry Jordan, Editor

In his first-ever NHRA Top Fuel competition, three-time NASCAR Champion Tony Stewart had a decent showing, surviving all four rounds of qualifying and then beating Justin Ashley off the line in the first elimination round but coming up short at the top of the track.

Ashely, known for his quick reaction times, left the line in the first elimination round with a .31-second RT but Stewart fired off with a .21-second RT. A quick-thinking Stewart had to pedal the car when the tires started to shake, costing him precious milliseconds on the track and resulting in a loss. he was eliminated early from the Gatornationals in Gainsville, Fla. At just one race in for the 2024 NHRA Top Fuel season, Stewart is currently tied for ninth with Britney Force and Clay Millican.

“I’m extremely pleased with my first Top Fuel weekend even with the first-round loss today,” Stewart said. “I cut an 0.21 light against the best leaver in the Top Fuel division, Justin Ashley, and beat him off the line. We were the first pair of cars down the track on Sunday morning, so you really don’t know what to expect. I felt the tires start to shake and I pedaled the throttle. I got back into the pedal as quickly as I could. But Justin just nipped me at the line. We had a lot of things against us in the first round, being the first pair and going against Justin.”

Stewart began the next chapter of his racing career last year in the NHRA’s Top Alcohol division and nearly took home the championship. In his rookie year of Top Alcohol, he narrowly finished second. Now, he is a rookie in the most elite division of the NHRA and he knows he has a lot to learn. He took over control of his wife, Leah Pruett’s car, while she stepped away in hopes of having their children.

“People ask me if I train to prepare for quick lights off the line. And, while Leah works on it, I really don’t,” Stewart said. “Maybe it comes from the other racing I’ve done over the years, but I try to calm down and relax at the line. I don’t have a false sense of security after five runs this weekend. I’m elated with how things went. There is zero shame in my eyes, even losing to Justin. Seven other guys went home after the first round too.

“I’m a rookie in Top Fuel and I hope I gained the respect of the other competitors in the class. I feel I was consistent with my starting line procedure and guys didn’t know what I would do.”

Stewart attributes his performance in NHRA to Pruett and Matt Hagan, who drives the Tony Stewart Nitro Funny Car. Their coaching has helped him not only make the transition to racing in a straight line rather than going in circles. From learning what the track is going to do to figuring out what the car is going to do, Stewart said it’s not easy but he is committed.

“I have learned a lot from Leah and Matt with these nitro cars. Making that first qualifying run on Friday afternoon was the most nerve-wracking for me. I was way calmer with the second run on Friday night. I was fine sitting in the race car during the rain delays. I’ve sat in a racecar for three and a half hours at Darlington (referring to his time in NASCAR), so I’m pretty calm just in sitting the car. Once I’m belted in the car, my heart rate goes way down. Going from the alcohol car to the Top Fuel car is similar from going from a Busch (stock car) to a Cup car. The cars are different, but the procedures are the same.

“I’m not leaving here (NHRA Gatornationals) thinking I know everything about Top Fuel racing. But I do feel good that I didn’t make any mistakes and the team is happy how I did in the car. But things can go 180 degrees at the next event. I know it’s going to be a long learning process. It’s a tough situation for Leah not being in the car right now, but she has been the best coach for me. I would have liked to advance further today, but that’s racing and I’m still learning with each run down the track.”

For his part, Hagan’s day also ended early. He went out in the second round of elimination against Chad Green. Like Stewart, Hagan’s car also had heavy tire shake at the line and he couldn’t recover. His pass was sub-optimal at just 123.26 mph compared to Green’s 323.5 mpg. Hagan is the defending champion in the NHRA’s Funny Car division and needs just one more trip to victory lane to become the 17th pro driver to have 50 tour wins.

“That is obviously not the way we want to start the season and the Gatornationals, as the defending event winner the last two years,” Hagan said. “But that is drag racing and the sport will humble you. We have to keep things in perspective. No one in the trailer was expecting the car to knock the tires off at the hit like that. Sometimes, these things happen, and you go back to the drawing board. We were trying to be aggressive and I think it was too much for what the track was going to handle.”

While disappointing, Hagan said he has confidence in his car and his team. He’s sure the less-than-stellar kickoff to the 2024 season isn’t indicative of how his season will go. He’s hopeful he can bounce back next week in Pomona.

“We were pushing and it’s hard for me to be upset with anyone when we’re trying to run hard and be aggressive and fast. As bad as it is, you just move on to Pomona. We’ll just keep moving forward and do the best job we can.”

Matt hagen funny car gator nats
Matt Hagan shut it down in Round 2 of eliminations as he felt the tires begin to shake. Courtesy photo

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